Theodor Seuss Geisel, better-known as Dr. Seuss, shakes hands with Cat in the Hat at the New Orleans Museum of …Dr. Seuss would have been 108 today, and while people the world over are familiar with his classic children's stories, the author himself has remained a bit of a mystery. Who was the man who made up fantastical creatures like a trouble-making, hat-wearing cat, a fluffy nature lover, and a kind-hearted elephant who crawls up a tree to egg-sit for a flaky, ungrateful bird?
Theodor Seuss Geisel Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, on March 2, 1904. He took his middle name (which was also his mother's maiden name) as his pen name -- it's actually pronounced ZOI-ce, not SOO-ce -- and was known to tell people that he was saving his real last name for the Great American Novel he planned to write someday. Instead, he wrote and illustrated more than 60 books as Dr. Seuss, as well as a dozen or so more as "Theo LeSeig" and one as "Rosetta Stone." There have been countless movie and television adaptations of his work.
According to his biography, "Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel" by Judith and Neal Morgan, Geisel himself was a bit of a character. During prohibition, he was suspended from Dartmouth College for drinking in his dorm room and lost the editorship of the school's humor magazine, where he published his cartoons. To avoid punishment, he started signing his work with several aliases, among them "L. Pasteur" and "Dr. Theophrastus Seuss."
Geisel married his Oxford classmate Helen Palmer in 1928, and for about 30 years made his living drawing illustrations and writing copy for advertisements. His work appeared in ad campaigns for Ford, NBC, General Electric, and others, but he finally found fame as an author with "The Cat in the Hat," in 1957. It was his 13th children's book.
He started writing for kids, not because he adored them, but because an agreement with one of his advertising clients prohibited him from other forms of writing. "I'd like to say that I went into children's book writing because of my great understanding of children," he said in a 1975 interview. "I went it because it wasn't excluded by my Standard Oil contract."
His first children's book, "And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street!," was published in 1937. An earlier book, an ABC primer of fanciful creatures, was written in 1931 -- the same year he and Helen discovered that they couldn't have children. To avoid questions and silence friends who bragged about their kids, Geisel would tell tales about his imaginary daughter, Chrysanthemum-Pearl, and dedicated his second children's book, "The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins," to her in 1938. (The dedication reads: "To "Chrysanthemum-Pearl (aged 89 months, going on 90).") He included her and her imaginary siblings -- Norval, Wally, Wickersham, Miggles, Boo-Boo, Thnud, and others -- on Christmas cards; one year, he and his wife, Helen, invited several neighborhood children to pose with them for a holiday greeting.
His entire career wasn't split between ads and kids, however: Geisel spent nearly two years drawing more than 400 political cartoons during World War II, criticizing fascism, isolationism, discrimination, and social injustice. He went on to draw posters and write films to support the the U.S. war effort as well. His political leanings are evident in some of his most popular children's books -- "The Lorax," which is about environmental conservationism, "Yertle the Turtle," a rant against tyranny inspired by the rise of Hitler, and "The Sneeches," which points up the absurdity of antisemitism and racism. "Horton Hears a Who" was inspired by a 1953 trip to Japan and the plight of the people who lived there post-Hiroshima.
But two of his most-famous characters -- the Grinch and the Cat in the Hat -- are reportedly based on Geisel himself. He once told Redbook magazine that his Grinch persona was inspired by his own reflection in the mirror the day after Christmas; the cat in the red-and-white-striped stovepipe hat came to life when he decided kids needed more of a reason to love reading. The character quickly became his alter-ego.
"I don't write for children. I write for people," he often said. Though he was childless for most of his career (some have interpreted his tale of adopted-fatherhood, "Horton Hatches an Egg," as his sorrow over missing out on parenthood), when he married his second wife, Audrey Stone Dimond, in 1967, he gained two teenage stepdaughters. Geisel died in 1991.
In an 1985 interview, when asked why his books were such a success, he answered: "I think I can communicate with kids because I don't try to communicate with kids. Ninety percent of the children's books patronize the child and say there's a difference between you and me, so you listen to me tell this story. I, for some reason or another, don't do that. I treat the child as an equal."
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